Statements Made at End of Trial Reviewed for Propriety in Workplace Lawsuit

The case of Williams v. C&E Boat Rental shows how important it is to hire attorneys who navigate court proceedings in line with judicial expectations. This post’s case arose out of a maritime injury claim and centered around comments made by the defense attorney during closing arguments.

In 2007, Williams was a deckhand on a boat owned by C&E. He alleged that he was injured by fumes while cleaning out the vessel’s lube oil tanks. Later that year, he hired an attorney and filed suit against C&E. The suit was voluntarily dismissed the day after it was filed. In 2009, Williams re-filed his suit against C&E alleging negligence and unseaworthiness. After the defense made its closing statement, Williams moved for a new trial claiming that statements the defense made during its closing argument were inappropriate and prejudicial. The defense made six different statements that Williams argued were prejudicial, specifically regarding the fact the statements alleged various types of misbehavior on the part of Williams’ attorney.

When discussing closing statements, an important evidentiary requirement is that statements made during closing argument must have some basis in evidence that was presented to the court. This is an issue of fundamental fairness as the opposing side would not be able to challenge the validity of such statements.

Williams’ attorney objected to two of the statements at trial, and the other four statements on appeal which required the Fifth Circuit to use two different standards of review when determining whether the statements were prejudicial. For the objections that were raised at trial, the Fifth Circuit used an abuse of discretion standard. When looking at an abuse of discretion claim, the trial court is given deference in determining what the impact of the statement was. The Fifth Circuit held that the statements characterizing Williams’ attorney’s action had some basis in evidence that had been presented to the court.

The higher court will also look at any jury charges or court statements to see if they mitigated the impact of the statement in question. In this case, the Fifth Circuit held that a jury charge from the trial court judge telling the jury that they can disregard attorney statements if they do not agree with the attorney’s interpretation of the evidence. The Fifth Circuit holds that between giving deference to the trial court and the jury charge, there is simply not enough evidence to overturn the lower court’s denial of a new trial.

For the objections raised on appeal, the Fifth Circuit applied a plain error standard. To demonstrate reversible plain error, Williams would have to show that 1) there was an error, 2) it was plain, and 3) it affected his substantial rights. Basically, this means that an error is prejudicial, and a lower court decision reversible, if it is reasonably probable that the outcome of the trial would have been different had the error not been made. In this case, the Fifth Circuit simply states that they felt the evidence provided by Williams did not rise to the level of a reversible error.

In sum, the Court’s decision boils down to holding that Williams simply did not provide strong enough evidence showing that the statements the defense attorney made rose to the level of reversible error or prejudice that would have required the Fifth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s decision.

This case shows the necessity of having top notch legal representation during trial and appeal. If you have any legal questions or need assistance, please do not hesitate to call the Berniard Law Firm for your legal needs.